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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

"Chapter 6: The Heart of the Matter"


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We have spent much time on preliminaries, but they were all worthwhile, even necessary, for many readers. Now it is time to examine the positive, reasonable proof that we can-in fact, intellectually cannot help but-believe the Catholic Church.

How shall we start? There are many approaches, but we will use the best one-the Gospels-to establish the validity of the Church. Immediately someone will argue, "You say we should believe the Church because the Gospels say so; and we should believe the Gospels because the Church says so-this is a vicious circle, like a dog chasing his tail. You will never prove things that way!"

We agree and hasten to assure readers that we have no such intention. We will start with the Gospels, yes, but we will not consider them as sacred, inspired, or any such thing. We will look at them merely as documents from ancient times. We will treat them the same way we treat other ancient documents, e.g., those from Caesar, Livy, Tacitus and others, and then see if we can arrive at some facts from them. Only after establishing the claims of the Church, do we take up the question of whether the Gospels are sacred or inspired.

But before we even start our work, we meet with two loud objections that seem very formidable today: historicism, and the claim that even eyewitnesses cannot be trusted.

Historicism is the claim that every person and every event is so unique that we have too little in common with the past to be confident of understanding the past. The consequences are devastating. History of any kind is thereby put under much doubt; the Gospels cannot be trusted; even the sense of past doctrinal statements of the Church cannot be known with certainty. And therefore, "Contemporary philosophy of history relativizes the past and thus neutralizes it ... we are freed from the past ... if the past imposes no pattern upon us, we are free to try to create the future."15

Obviously, before we can try to get any facts from the Gospels, we must meet this threat to all history.

To start, it is very helpful to go back to almost the beginning of history writing. Herodotus, the early fifth century Greek author of a History of the Persian Wars, who is often called "The Father of History," wrote, " ... my duty is to report all that is said, but I am not obliged to believe it all alike-a remark which may be understood to apply to my whole history."16 Later in the same century, Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War, in which he himself had been a general: "Of the events of the war I have not ventured to speak from any chance information, nor according to any notion of my own: I have described nothing but what I either saw myself, or learned from others, from whom I made the most careful and particular inquiry";17 and again, "I took great pains to make out the exact truth."18

We could easily fill many pages with similar statements. What we need to notice is that these early writers intended to report facts. Their critical ability and techniques were somewhat less developed than those of modern historians. Yet they did strive to report facts, and did so remarkably well. A later Roman historian, Tacitus, is judged by most scholars to be almost the equal of a modern writer in reporting facts.19

Besides reporting facts, these Greek and Roman writers added interpretations.

Can we tell fact from interpretation? Historians have no doubt or problem about that in general. We mention this point since, oddly, some Scripture scholars today say we cannot distinguish the same two elements in the Gospels. Let us take two examples to show concretely how we can distinguish fact from inference.

Tacitus writes in his Annals, "He [Tiberius, right after the death of Augustus, when Tiberius was to become Emperor] only showed signs of hesitation when he addressed the senate. This was chiefly because of Germanicus who was extremely popular ... Tiberius was afraid Germanicus might prefer the throne to the prospect of it."20

Notice the hesitant manner of speaking and acting which Tiberius used at the time. This manner was a physical fact, readily visible to countless witnesses. We can assume that Tiberius feared to speak too fast for fear of provoking Germanicus to make a move for the throne. This is of course an interpretation. It tries to read the mind of Tiberius. If Tiberius had explicitly said such was his motive, it would have been a physically observable fact-but he clearly did not. Tacitus was just trying to infer this. The inference may or may not have been correct.

In Luke 10:30-37, we have the story of the man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho, was beaten and left half dead by the road. Again, we distinguish two components, 1) the simple physical fact that he was found half dead at the roadside after having been beaten; 2) the interpretation: What was the motive? Robbery? Senseless violence? Revenge? The Gospel tells us he was robbed. Had it not provided that information we might not have been sure of the interpretation of the beating.

As we see, we can easily distinguish between the two kinds of materials. We have stressed this because historicists seem to forget it, and so they focus their attention entirely on the second item, interpretation-forgetting the first, the simple physical facts. It is true that it is often difficult to determine the interpretation of a past event, especially if it involves customs, beliefs or attitudes of a culture different from ours. We may find it hard to reconstruct the picture with certainty-though often enough it can be done. Thus, for example, it is possible by careful detective work to recapture the almost lost ancient concept of hesed in the Old Covenant.21

With regard to physical facts, anyone, no matter what his cultural background, customs or beliefs, can observe them.

So the historicists have made a serious mistake at the outset in forgetting this obvious distinction.

Historicism developed as an "equal and opposite" pendulum reaction. J. Bossuet in his Discourse on Universal History (1681) claimed that Divine Providence is so all-pervasive in the course of history that it directs events even to goals in this world. Now of course, there is a measure of truth in this. Providence does affect events. But Bossuet exaggerated much.

Next, the men of the so-called Enlightenment and the Positivists, chiefly in the 18th century, had similar beliefs. They did not appeal to Divine Providence, but they thought there was so much pattern in the course of history that we could treat history like the experimental sciences, that is, find laws, make hypotheses, and thus be able to predict many things and even have much control over events. This was another great exaggeration.

In about 1810, G.F.W. Hegel, a philosopher, introduced the theory that all history could be found to be in clusters of three stages: thesis, antithesis, synthesis. That is: Someone takes a position, someone else takes an opposite stand; the interaction leads to a third position. Again, there is much truth in this, but not everything fits so tightly.

As we said, the equal and opposite reaction had to come. Historicists began to deny all pattern22 and thus to contend that each person and each event is so unique that we have not enough in common to understand them in relationship to each other. Again, they had a measure of truth; but they failed to distinguish mere physical events from interpretations. Culture, customs and beliefs do not affect one 's perception of simple physical events-though they do, as we said, create difficulties of varying degrees in making interpretations.

But, for our purpose, to lay the groundwork for faith, we need only physical facts from the Gospels-and very few of them, very simple ones, as we shall see. Hence, the worries of the historicists do not affect us. In fact, at the conclusion of our work, we will find it very simple to make an end-run around the claims of historicists.

Further, the historicists are wrong in refusing to recognize that there are many patterns in people's lives and in events. Anthropologists tell us primitive people have much the same moral codes as we have, though how well they keep them can be another question. Their codes are similar to our Ten Commandments. Medical doctors describe standard reactions among their patients. So too do psychologists. Ascetical and mystical theologians likewise can point to large general patterns in the way people grow in the spiritual life. And even the old schools of biology, that said there are four kinds of temperaments in people, though based on inaccurate biology, turn out to give a fine description of basic groups of tendencies in behavior. Sociologists too can give us large groupings of attitudes and conduct. And even in the everyday simple matters of what kind of exercise one likes, or what kinds of food one prefers, or one's taste in the fine arts-there are large groupings among people. So, while there are many individual differences, there are also extensive and numerous patterns which help us much, even in the interpretation of things.

So the historicists have not proved anything that would prevent us from using the few simple physical facts we need from the Gospels for a basis of faith.

Of course, we still have a lot of things to work out before we ask the Gospels for even those. But we can use them, and we will use them.

We said that doubts have been raised today even about the validity of eyewitnesses. Experiments done on eyewitnesses have raised some questions about how much we can depend on even them to report facts. In one experiment,23 students were shown a film of a multiple car accident, then given 22 questions to answer. There were divergences on the answers to the question, "Did you see a broken headlight?" In another experiment, a news magazine printed several copies of pennies, each slightly different, and people were asked to pick out the one that matched the actual penny.

Of course there were differences in the answers in both experiments. But the experimenters forgot to make necessary distinctions, the usual root of errors in solving such problems. They did not notice two factors that affect the outcome: motive and opportunity. In both cases, there was little motive for the witnesses to remember. Surely, we do not pay attention to the precise wording on pennies, and other similar details about them. There is no point in doing so. As to the car accident: Accidents happen so suddenly, and usually when the witnesses are not looking, or, if looking, are not paying attention. The opportunity to see is very brief, very sudden. So it was easy for them to fail to note things such as whether or not a headlight was broken. Plus, they had small motive to watch carefully.

But consider a case in which there is high motivation and high opportunity. Suppose, to take a wild example, a space ship really landed in the parking lot of a large shopping center. People would not only hear it coming down, but would also be unable to take their eyes off it as the door opened and some odd little people emerged. Yes, their emotions might make some details confused even then, but the big basic fact-that a space ship landed and odd people came out-no one could possibly fail to get that right.

Similarly with the Gospel miracles: If a man says to a leper, "Be made clean" and instantly he is cured; or if he ordered a blind man to see; the onlookers could not forget those basic facts, though they might disagree on unimportant details. They had ample opportunity, and strong motive to remember.

What about the man himself who was healed? Would he not get it straight, and other things about Jesus too? Of course. He could not help it. But now-and this is really remarkable-we happen to have an early writer, Quadratus, writing about 123 A.D., who tells us that in his time, people healed by Christ, and even raised from the dead by Him were still around. What powerful witnesses such people make! (We will quote Quadratus at the end of Chapter 10).

For the time being, we are not trying positively to prove that the Gospels are reliable. We are just doing preliminary work, clearing away possible obstacles or objections that would say we cannot trust any history, or any eyewitnesses.


15 J. W. O'Malley, "Reform, Historical Consciousness, and Vatican II's Aggiornamento" in Theological Studies 32 (1971) pp. 597-98, cf. Avery Dulles, The Survival of Dogma, Doubleday, N.Y., 1971. p. 164.
16 Herodotus 7.152.
17 Thucydides 1.22.
18 Ibid. 5.26.
19 Cf. M. L. W. Laistner, The Greater Roman Historians, in Sather Classical Lectures 21, University of California, Berkeley, 1947. p. 129.
20 Tacitus, Annals 1.7.
21 Cf. Wm. G. Most, "A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework" in Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 29 (1967) pp. 1-19.
22 The movement began with G. Vico in his Scienza nuova (3d ed. 1744), which held that to truly know something it is necessary in some sense to have made it. Prominent others were J. G. Droysen, W. Dilthey, E. Troeltsch, Fr. Meinecke. Especially influential has been R. G. Collingwood, in The Idea of History, Oxford, 1946. Historicism found an ally in the notions of Paul Ricoeur and H. G. Gadamer, who held that when a text leaves the author's hands, it has an independent life of its own, and can take on many meanings—what the original author meant cannot be determined, and it is not necessary to know. Existentialism (cf. note 1 above) also contributed.
23 Cf. R. J. Trotter, "The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But ..." in Science News 108 (1975) pp. 269-70.